I don’t usually get to books this soon after publication (my TBR backlog is ridiculous), but based on the description (and that title!) this is one that I actually almost pre-ordered. I decided at the last minute not to, but still wanted to get to it as soon as possible. And I have to say, I’m now sorry I didn’t end up pre-ordering. This is worth every accolade and more. I’ve been on a lucky roll lately with good books, books that have blown me away and will likely stay favorites for years to come (My Absolute Darling, The Power), and this one is right up there with them.
“Believing is a type of magic. It can make something true.”
After Leigh’s mother commits suicide on the same day that she *finally* kisses her years-long best friend and secret crush Axel, Leigh is thrown into a spiral of grief and confusion. She’s afraid to confront what happened with Axel and is crushed under the effort of trying to process that her mother is gone. A few nights after her mother’s death, Leigh dreams of a giant red bird and knows, knows, that it is her mother. When, a few nights later, this bird delivers a box of photos and letters written in Chinese (which Leigh cannot read), she finally convinces her father to take her to Taiwan – to visit her maternal grandparents that she has never met, that her mother would not talk about. Leigh leaves everything behind, ignoring Axel and, eventually, her father, in an all-out quest to “find” her mother (in bird form) in Taiwan, by visiting all her favorite places and learning everything she could about her mother’s past, uncovering information that everyone has kept from her, and tried to forget, for years. As the story goes, we see glimpses into the past, from as far back as her grandmother’s youth and her mother’s childhood in Taiwan to Leigh’s own memories about growing up alongside her mother’s depression and her evolving relationship with Axel.
There is so much that I loved about this novel. So much. In fact, to be totally transparent, I loved all of it. To start, the story was amazing. A beautiful and heart-squeezing novel of family – from the breaks and guilt that are unavoidable to the love that appears/remains to fill the cracks. The conflict of familial expectations in contrast with the bid for freedom that all children have is a theme we can all identify with and is explored to perfection here. The complication and feel of “home”-lessness for immigrants and children of mixed descent are also important themes that develop as the story does. And the mixed complications of mental illness are also thoroughly and realistically portrayed, from the direct effects on the person struggling under them to the difficulties of their family and friends. Included in that, here, is the ofttimes impossible to accept fact that mental illness is unpredictable, that no one is to blame and there is not always an obvious answer or breaking point. This includes the grudges and pain that can come from the pressures each person experiences in these types of situations, ones that many times are not addressed or (in the best-case scenario) remedied, until it is too late. Reading through Leigh’s memories, and how she is looking back at them now in new light, was so tragic, so affecting. It was such a tangled exploration of the particular type of guilt and grief that comes with being the child of someone struggling with their mental health.
“When mom was quiet, our home felt like a pit deep in the ground. When she was loud and irrationally angry, our home was a storm cloud holding tightly on to all it’s thunder.”
That exploration was woven together so smoothly with Leigh’s discoveries from the past and concurrent struggle to understand and deal with her emerging feelings for her best friend. The journey of her grief and self-rediscovery, through its many stages, was visceral from the start and stayed that way through until the finale. And though we do end with hope, with potential in the future, that doesn’t erase or supersede the ache for everyone involved.
In addition to the finesse of the story itself, and its impressively intertwined layers, the creativity and artistry in the telling was incredible. The author’s control of the pacing and wording kept me totally entranced. Along with that, the magical realism of the story was written flawlessly. Magical realism is one of my favorite subgenres and I haven’t read any that are better than this. Leigh’s connection with her mother’s bird spirit and family ghosts, her ability to reach into the past for memories, the feel of her world crumbling around her in her grief…all of it created a mixed world of “here” that seemed both completely real and totally impossible that played beautifully in a tale about grief. It was not just the author’s own creative skill that was so important, but that combined with the role that art played in the story. Leigh’s mother was an accomplished pianist, Leigh herself was gifted in sketching/drawing, and Axel was a visionary who connected music and 2D art in inventive ways. Each of their talents was part of the story in its own important way. In addition, the author uses colors in a unique way that I’ve never seen like this before – as descriptors for feelings. It was a theme that wound throughout the novel and stands, in my opinion, as one of the best used motifs I’ve ever experienced. Finally, and though this may seem small compared to all the other amazing aspects I just mentioned, I really learned some things about Taiwanese traditions, especially related to beliefs about grieving and ghosts (and food, of course). These cultural details were just one more fantastic and enlightening piece of this amazing novel.
There is nothing to do but say it: this book was astonishing. Truly astonishing. And if you asked me ‘what color?’ right now, right after finishing, I’d have to say the soft, incandescent saffron of inspiration.
I literally cannot get enough of how colors were used, so here are my favorites. There are a lot. I’m not sorry about it.
“The colors of this kind of grief should be stark and piercing, with the alarmed brightness of something toxic. Not the quiet hue of shadows.”
“I stand there with my feet rooted into the carpet of that memory, watching until my ribs crunch together and pulverize my heart and send the heat of my missing everywhere. The grief spills out of me sepia dark.”
“My worry expanded like a coral balloon, its color growing paler with every breath that filled its belly, until the worry was almost see-through, little more than the hint of a shadow, but nevertheless still constant, still there.”
“…suddenly I’m lost in an indanthrene blue, heavy with remembering.”
“My heart swells with raw-sienna hope.”
“Later the guilt for having the thought would come in heavy fluorescent-green waves, as if I’d committed the worst kind of betrayal.”
“…I drop my gaze, try to ignore the sap-green irritation dripping through my insides.”
“The urgency and longing wrap around me in swirls of aureolin and splotches of violet.”
“Weary of the shadows and storms being tugged to the surface of my mind, mauve spilling into raw umber.”
“Once upon a time we were the standard colors of a rainbow, cheery and certain of ourselves. At some point, we all began to stumble into the in-betweens, the murky colors made dark and complicated by resentment and quiet anger.”
“My voice comes out all ultramarine.”
“…the thought of him was a cobalt bruise I kept bumping.”
“I tried to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t work; there was something stuck in it, dry and methyl violet.”
“A living room bursting with magenta warmth and the dandelion cheer and all the hues of love, invisible but undeniably there.”
“I give myself a minute to think about it, until the certainty settles over me a disazo scarlet…”
“Every inch of me was filled with rhodamine red.”
“The sky turns purple. It begins to rain feathers. Every shade of red. Scarlet and merlot and opera rose and Venetian and ruby and mahogany and sangria and blood and currant reds.”
“The electricity crackled between us pyrazolone orange; he must’ve felt it, too.”
“During those absent years, his presence had turned a hard and icy blue, but now he brings with him a warm, reassuring yellow ochre.”
“My heart bursting with manganese blue and new gamboge yellow and quinacridone rose.”